Syria plays hardball with the Saudis
DAMASCUS - In a further sign of just how low Syrian-Saudi Arabian relations have sunk, Syrian authorities have banned the distribution of al-Hayat, the Saudi-owned mass circulation Arab daily.
The step came nearly two years after al-Sharq al-Awsat, another Saudi daily, was banned from Syria for running articles that were considered critical of the Syrian government during the Israeli war in Lebanon in 2006.
Subsequently, the Syrians hailed Hezbollah in Lebanon as a resistance organization while the Saudis criticized it because of its links to Iran, claiming that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was an "adventurer".
President Bashar al-Assad snapped back in a speech that those who had conspired against Hezbollah in the Arab world (in clear reference to Saudi Arabia) were "half-men".
The cold war between Damascus and Riyadh continued between 2006-2008, over a variety of issues related to influence in Lebanon, Iraq and to a lesser extent, Palestine. The Syrians challenged Saudi Arabia by cementing their relationship with Iran, arguing that while the Iranians were supporting Syria's positions with regard to its standoff with the United States, the Saudis were only adding insult to injury by applying pressure on Washington to keep the heat on Damascus and engaging in dirty intelligence tricks with the aim of destabilizing Syria.
Syria challenged the Saudis in Beirut - and won a military confrontation between Hezbollah and the Saudis' Hariri bloc last May. Meanwhile, the Saudis started playing the dangerous game of turning a blind eye to jihadis wanting to wage war on Syria. While Saudi Arabia's official policy remained critical of Syria, a certain branch in the Saudi royal family still harbored ambitions to topple the Syrian government altogether and replace it with pro-Saudi opposition figures like former vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam.
Tension was further elevated when terror struck in the heart of Damascus on September 27. A suicide bomber loaded with 200 kilograms of explosives killed 17 Syrians and injured between 15 to 40 civilians. Saudi Arabia was the only country in the Arab world that refused to condemn the attack, although it was harshly criticized by France, Russia and even the US.
The Saudi press continued to write negatively about Syria, explaining why the Syrians decided to ban the distribution of al-Hayat, the only surviving Saudi daily on Syrian newsstands. Coinciding with Syria's decision came the resignation of Ibrahim Hamidi, the newspaper's bureau chief and senior correspondent in Syria.
Hamidi, who had served as al-Hayat's man in Damascus since the early 1990s, was quoted saying, "I couldn't take it anymore. I terminated my work with al-Hayat because I cannot be a part of a newspaper that is engaged in a systematic campaign against Syria."
Although it became clear to everybody - France being first on the list - that the Saudis were not getting the upper hand in Beirut politics, Lebanon remained closely allied to Riyadh, due to the personal and financial bond between Saad Hariri, the parliamentary majority leader, and the House of Saud.
One of the first to realize that the Syrians are overpowering the Saudis in Lebanon was Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a strongman of the March 14 Coalition. He realized that the US-imposed isolation of Syria has crumbled, after Bashar Al Assad's visit to Paris in July 2008. The Turks and the Qataris are firmly behind Syria in its indirect peace talks with Israel, a strong counterbalance to the Saudis, which might result in a peace treaty as of mid-2009. If that happens, the Hariri Tribunal (on which the Saudis had placed high hopes) will be consigned to history.
The US administration, wrapped in controversy in Iraq, is clearly uninterested in regime change in Syria, as was the case several years ago. Their ally, Abdul-Halim Khaddam, has by all accounts ruined himself by betting on the wrong horse in 2005. What's worse, the Saudi-trained and funded March 14 forces were defeated on the streets of Beirut in May, when they tried to confront Hezbollah.
Within hours, Hezbollah rounded up all militiamen on the payroll of Saudi Arabia and forced the cabinet of Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora to back down on legislation taken earlier against Hezbollah. It was clear: the US and Saudi Arabia lost the war for Beirut, and Syria and Iran won.
When fighting shifted to the Druze villages on Mount Lebanon, Hezbollah fighters encircled Jumblatt's home - despite all the backing he had from the Saudis - but did not invade it. He got on the telephone with speaker Nabih Berri (who is pro-Syrian and strongly allied to Iran) and said, "Tell Sayed Hassan Nasrallah I lost the battle and he wins. So let's sit and talk to reach a compromise."
Last month, Jumblatt went further, accusing Hariri in the Beirut daily al-Akhbar of building a militia and allying himself with Islamic hardliners. Speaking about the arms of the Hariri team, Jumblatt said, "To form a militia today? To face whom? Hezbollah? This is crazy."
More recently, what worried both the Saudis and Jumblatt was the semi-rapprochement that started developing between Syria and the US. Last month, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, at her request, and discussed a variety of issues related to the Middle East.
That was the second meeting between both ministers since May 2007. According to the Syrian minister, Rice showed willingness to support Syrian-Israeli peace, a u-turn in the American position, which until now, has been uninterested in the indirect talks taking place in Turkey.
This week, the Doha-based al-Jazeera news agency quoted American "sources" saying that they were reconsidering their policies towards Syria during what remains of the George W Bush administration. A "senior US official" was quoted repeating exactly that on Israeli radio, adding that this would lead to the lifting of sanctions imposed on Syria by the Bush administration since 2003.
The Syrians believe, although they have not said it bluntly, that the Saudis are furious at Syria's repeated diplomatic successes. Eager for vengeance, they are now financing Islamic fundamentalism in Lebanon to strike at both Hezbollah and Syria and have not yet digested the outcomes of May 2008.
Assad said that the sectarian violence taking place in northern Lebanon was dangerous to Syria. Many believe that the suicide bomber who detonated a bomb in Damascus was a product of a fanatical group trained and created in Lebanon. That might explain why the Syrians amassed thousands of troops on their border with Lebanon, to prevent the influx of jihadi fighters to Syria.
If Saudi Arabia was not guilty of the September 27 attack, it certainly looked and acted guilty by refusing to say anything about it.
Meanwhile, the Saudis, frantic to save their positions in Lebanon, had already started pumping money to build a Sunni armed movement to confront Hezbollah if matters escalated once again. Earlier in May 2007, veteran US journalist Seymour Hersh claimed that they had co-created Fatah al-Islam, a fundamentalist group to fight the Shi'ites in Lebanon.
It grew out of control, just as the case with al-Qaeda (which was created with the aim of fighting the Soviets) and turned its arms against the Lebanese state, resulting in grinding battles in the Naher al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon.
Earlier last year, the UN prosecutor in the Hariri affair, Serge Brammertz, noted that the suicide bomber who killed Rafik al-Hariri in February 2005 was neither Lebanese, nor Syrian. Rather, he came from a "hot district" which was believed by many to be a clear reference to one of the Gulf countries, possibly Saudi Arabia.
The bomber, according to Brammertz, had spent only about four months of his life in Lebanon and nearly 10 years in a "rural area", possibly the mountains of Afghanistan. After all, hundreds of Saudis lived there when working with the United States to combat the Soviet invasion in the 1980s. That shed light once more on Saudi jihadis in Lebanon.
The Syrians realize just how dangerous it is for the Saudis to be flirting with radical fundamentalists, because this can set the entire region ablaze. After all, it has already been revealed (by a US source in the Los Angeles Times) that 45% of all foreign fighters in Iraq were coming from Saudi Arabia, 50% of them arriving in Baghdad, "ready-to-explode".
Sami Askari, a senior advisor to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, confirmed the accusations, saying, "The fact of the matter is that Saudi Arabia has strong intelligence resources, and it would be hard to think that they are not aware of what is going on [in Iraq]."
Saudi journalist Faris bin Khuzam, writing for the Saudi daily al-Riyadh, put the number of Saudi jihadis in Lebanon operating from Naher al-Bared at 300. He claims they were "lured" into a battlefield "other than the one they wanted", saying that they had plans to fight the Americans in Iraq, and ended up in Tripoli.
The reason, he explained, is tight security on the Syrian border (in addition to the Saudi border) preventing them from making a breakthrough into war-torn Iraq. Instead, they found their way into Lebanon and stayed for what initially seemed to be a temporary transit period. "Gradually the pendulum shifted," Khuzam wrote, adding that "they were told that the road to Jerusalem runs through here [Naher al-Bared]". He concluded, "They chose the Saudi dream that Osama bin Laden could not fulfill."
When the battle of Naher al-Bared ended in 2007, it was revealed that 43 Saudi jihadis had been rounded up from Fatah al-Islam in Tripoli, while others could be found in the Ain al-Hilweh camp near Sidon. According to Hersh, "The idea [is] that the Saudis promised they could control the jihadis, so we [US] spent a lot of money and time ... using and supporting the jihadis to help us beat the Russians in Afghanistan, and they turned on us. And we have the same pattern, not as if there's any lessons learned. The same pattern, using the Saudis again to support jihadis."
The Saudis, Hersh said, were telling the Americans, "It's not that we don't want the Salafis to throw bombs, it's who they throw them at - Hezbollah, [Iraqi Shi'ite cleric] Muqtada al-Sadr and the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran." In a famous CNN interview, Hersh added, "The enemy of our enemy is our friend, just as the jihadi groups in Lebanon were also there to go after [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah. We're in the business of creating in some places, Lebanon in particular, sectarian violence."
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.